William Shatner is a talented actor. He was Captain Kirk, he was TJ Hooker, he was even the guy who freaked out because there was a monster on the wing in that “Twilight Zone” episode. But as talented an actor as he is, he just wasn’t cut out to be a film director. Remember “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier?” That brings us to Frank Zappa, a true original in the world of rock n’ roll. His music was challenging…bizarre…the work of an extremely talented man. But a film director he was not. Brace yourselves for “200 Motels.”
The film, directed by Zappa and Tony Palmer, defies description but is probably best labeled as a surrealistic musical. There is no story, just several supposedly humorous vignettes strung together by Zappa’s music. The songs are inspired by the life-on-the-road existence of a rock band. As expected, the music is the strongest aspect of the film. I admit, Zappa is not for everyone. Many don’t have the patience for his experimentation or the stomach for his subject matter, but there’s no denying his musical creativity. Some segments even involve a large orchestra who appear on film alongside Zappa’s band, The Mother’s of Invention. The looks of confusion and frustration on their faces are hard to ignore.
Zappa himself barely makes a cameo appearance in the film. The members of his band get the most screen time, especially former Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who were relatively new members of Zappa’s ensemble at the time the film was made. Also on hand are Ringo Starr, dressed as Zappa, and Keith Moon, dressed as a nun. Moon’s sequence in the film is actually pretty disturbing as he flops around on a bed moaning about the amount of pills he’s taken. It’s not everyday you see a movie in which someone is essentially prophesying on their own death. The sequence is also odd considering that Zappa was not a drug user and had a poor opinion of those who were.
The movie really looks like it was made up on the spot, but I have a hard time believing that was the case. I read a book about Zappa a few years ago and I remember reading that even musical passages that seemed improvised were meticulously planned out. It would seem like much of the madness of “200 Motels” was also, probably, carefully planned out. But you’d never know it.
“200 Motels” was actually the first movie to be filmed on videotape and then transferred to film. That’s an interesting historical distinction for this film, since in many ways it is an extended music video. Zappa’s music is unique and he has paired it with unique images. However, I feel that Zappa’s music is better without the visual enhancement. The mind goes to many places while listening to his work, oddly enough, the images on the screen detract from that. If you want to experience the world of Zappa…do it with your ears.